There are few universities where football is as deeply embedded in the culture as at the Naval Academy.
And few people have had as close-up of a view as retired admiral Tom Lynch, a Lima Central Catholic graduate who played football there with Roger Staubach and returned to the academy as its superintendent three decades later.
In good years, not so good years and even in really down years, Navy pours on the pageantry.
All of the academy’s nearly 4,400 midshipmen (which is what both male and female students are called) march into the games in uniform. Visiting teams are greeted with a respectful cheer. Navy is greeted with a “Go Navy,” cheer.
Flyovers and parachute jumps are fixtures at home games, though that part of the pre-game activities will be missing when Ohio State plays Navy in Baltimore on Saturday because of the urban location of M&T Bank Stadium.
Attendance at football games is mandatory for Naval Academy students. They stand the entire game.
“Football means a great deal because it’s the one event or activity or sport that coalesces the entire brigade. It’s amazing,” Lynch said.
“The football team can boost the spirit and morale and everything. If we win on Saturday, everybody has a lighter step on Monday. They feel good. It’s very important,” he said.
“The Naval Academy is a very strenuous program. It challenges young men and young women academically, athletically and individually all the time. We’re developing leadership so they have very little free time. It’s a release of spirit and enthusiasm in supporting their team.”
Lynch, a center, played on Navy teams which had records of 7-3, 5-5 and 9-1. In his final season in 1963, Navy was ranked No. 1 in one wire service poll and No. 2 in another before losing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Staubach, a junior quarterback, won the Heisman Trophy that season, the second time in four years a Navy player won that award.
Lynch returned to the Naval Academy as its superintendent from 1991 to early 1994. In the three football seasons he was superintendent, Navy won one game, one game and four games. It had only two winning seasons between1983-2002.
Even at Navy, the enthusiasm level in the student body is tied to the success of the team.
“A few years ago, it was more of a chore for the midshipmen to show a lot of enthusiasm and support. Now they’re all pumped up. They want to be at every game,” Lynch said.
Navy’s No. 1 rival, obviously, is Army. It also has played Notre Dame every year since 1927, including one stretch where it lost 43 consecutive times to the Fighting Irish.
Ohio State beat Navy 31-27 in 2009 at Ohio Stadium, the last time the two teams played in a game that got closer than expected in the final minutes. This will be the fifth time the two teams have played but the first time since 1930 it will be Navy’s home game. OSU has won the previous four games.
“It’s right up there,” Lynch said about where a match-up with Ohio State ranks for Navy. “Just to have the opportunity to play that level of competition, that’s a thrill. But we’re not going in there like, ‘Hey, let’s have a good game and if we make it close we’ll have a moral victory.’ ”
Football could have a purpose beyond entertainment, unifying the brigade and increasing the Naval Academy’s profile, especially in situations in which the Midshipmen are the underdog.
“Some people say, ‘Why are you playing Notre Dame? Why are you playing Ohio State? You’re so out-manned’,’’ Lynch said. “My response to that is that we’re training these young men and young women to be leaders in combat. The decisions they make will affect their own lives, the lives of others and have a serious impact on the country.
“Sometimes they’re not going to have all the resources and they’re not going to have all the intelligence and everything you need when you go into battle,” he said. “The spirit and grit and determination and never-say-die attitude that keeps us in ball games is all important to the Naval Academy.”